The science correspondent of the Guardian, Alok Jha, writing of the merits of the ‘scientific method’ of evidential and experimental assessment in scientific discovery in an article entitled ‘Acknowledging mistakes is key to advancement – and not just in science’ (18th November 2011), wrote this:
‘Uncertainty, error and doubt are all confounding factors in whatever method you use to get at the truth. Acknowledging it and developing methods against it has been absorbed into scientific thinking – the most consistently successful method humans have developed to discover truth – and it seems churlish not to learn that lesson for the rest of life too.’
And so what about art? By what methods does the artworld uphold claims of integrity, and counter the undermining of value by falsity and error, or even outright fraud? I don’t refer to the copying of artworks by forgers, which is but a small crime of a pecuniary nature, but allude to the production of paintings and sculptures that have only a negative contribution to those disciplines; works that undermine the coherence and confound the recognition, particularly for young people just beginning to look at art, of what is truly and properly visual; works that are gratuitous additions to the increasing excesses of conceptual and counterfeit art with overweening pretentions to significance. Who can still think that there is none of this going on in contemporary art? Who can still believe in the truthfulness of the artworld and its concomitant art-market? The winners at the moment are the most superficial of wheeler-dealers, who see contemporary art as a means to buck the laws on money-laundering and insider-trading. Well, it’s probably no more corrupt than late 19th century Paris, but its ubiquity and unaccountability makes for a virtual world-wide monoculture, an unchallengeable monopoly propagating poor values based upon downgraded and superficial subjectivity.
Where is our correspondingly objective ‘artistic method’? The irony here is that subjectivity – that is, the evaluation of deeply-held ‘feelings’ about our responses to art – is central to the objective appraisal of art’s real achievements. What is more, it is likely true to say that the same human emotional responses govern the supposedly more objective approach to science too; the scientific method perhaps depends equally upon feelings and hunches and leaps of imagination for its progression. This is not a contradiction; subjectivity and objectivity are in their proper form complementary. But in our refusal to acknowledge the objective side of looking at art, and our insistence upon the imperatives of feeling in each of us individually, we have no forum in which those feelings can be evaluated. All well and good, but some feelings about the world outside of ourselves – which includes both art and science – are deeper and truer than others; some individuals can access and articulate those deeper feelings more easily and effectively than others, and such people should be counted upon to provide insight. But we are now in the realms of pandering to everyone’s most puerile ability to interpret art – everyone from a five year-old to Alain de Botton can have their (equal) say in what art ‘means’ to them, without in the least paying attention to what is in front of their eyes; and most importantly, without having to test those feeling for authenticity in the spotlight of some sort of public scrutiny. There is no artistic equivalent of the peer review that takes place in the scientific world.
We need the means to discuss art as openly and as objectively as possible, and we need to discuss only the things about art that rightly belong in the public realm – what are the ‘facts’ of its appearance, what do they do, and how do they work together (if they do). The problem is that the kind of ‘logic’ we need to use to feed our argumentative discussions is a visual logic, based upon what we see, what the artwork actively ‘does’ and, yes, how it ‘feels’ – an example might be the perfect logic of a Cézanne passage of form, a ‘sequence-in-depth’, the achievement of unity from diversity, and the value of which is, as far as it is possible to be certain, an objective ‘fact’. The ‘testability’ required must have some such degree of objectivity, yet it needs to be nevertheless receptive to illusionistic qualities rather than literal truths, a ‘reality of illusion’, subject as this is to the vagaries of individual sensibility and proclivity. This makes for some difficulty; it is in truth a task for really good writers and critics, but in their wretched absence abstract artists must themselves make the best job they can of it. The truth about painting and sculpture is a moving target, and that is part and parcel of its value. This does not mean that we should give up on it. In science, they perhaps have a better accommodation of the ambiguity inherent in the ‘pursuit of truth’ than us artists do, in as much as any postulated theory cannot be considered properly scientific unless you can think of an experiment that could falsify it. Science is not a set of fixed facts, but a group of things that are considered ‘the least wrong’ at any moment in time; and thus always subject to revision and/or progression. Would that art were a little more like this, for in art we are forever resurrecting ideas that would be laughed out-of-court by a more objective artistic discourse. In abstract art, many bad ideas come back around again that have been played out at least once before. I don’t need to enumerate them; you can pick your own. Openly discussing the objective shortcomings of bad art should be seen as a necessity and a liberation, rather than the personal affront and embarrassment it usually gives rise to.
The hundred-year history of abstract art has promoted the worst excesses of subjective interpretation, in most cases wilfully encouraged or initiated by the artists themselves. That most seminal if protean movement of abstract art, Abstract Expressionism, was suffused with interpretive intimations of grandiosity and complexity quite beyond its rather modest achievements. As the degree of originality and form in the work deteriorated through the sixties and into the seventies (there are exceptions, of course), so the conceptual content increased – Conceptual Art is a direct consequence of Minimalism, and, bizarrely, it could be said that Minimalism is a direct consequence of the Abstract Expressionist desire for simplistic abstract art to embrace profound concepts way beyond its means (to the point of artistic Nihilism). If a few stripes can encompass profundity, why strive for anything more demanding or complex?
The rump of abstract art now, particularly contemporary abstract painting, seems for the most part (again, there are exceptions) content to acknowledge just how banal it really is, and in Provisionalism and Casualism has actively begun to revel in it (though these pseudo-movements secretly, one feels, still yearn to be acknowledged as profound manifestations of truths-to-something-or-other). It remains to be seen whether abstract art can really deliver profundity and sublimity, like the best of figurative painting, by becoming truly and profoundly original in the new complex form(s) that it invents for itself, the new unifications and reconciliations of extremes it can achieve, and the new meanings it can embody in so doing.